A box was built for Napoleon III, the President of the Second French Republic and Emperor of the Second French Empire, at the Palais Garnier Opera House in the center of Paris. But he never took his seat, as he was dethroned in 1870 and the house only opened five years later.
So it was fitting that his portrait, and that of his wife, Empress Eugenie, were at the entrance to the reception when the Christopher Forbes collection was presented this week to collectors and members of the Imperial family.
A ‘challenging, overwhelming’ collection, according to auctioneer Jean-Pierre Osenat.
The collection of 2,000 art objects, paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, photographs and other historical souvenirs is the world’s largest unique private collection. The lifetime’s work of Christopher Forbes, Vice Chairman of the Forbes US business media group, is being presented for auction next weekend in Fontainebleau, south of Paris.
Introducing the collection, auctioneer Jean-Pierre Osenat said his team had been overwhelmed at the size of the collection when it arrived from Forbes’ New Jersey home. “We watched in amazement as all these containers arrived, bringing these objects back to France,” Osenat said. Bringing them up the staircases of the Opera Garnier had also been a challenge.
The lesser-known Napoleon
Forbes said he had searched for an auction house which would take on the entire collection – and not just the most valuable items. “It was the reason I brought the collection to Osenat,” he said. “In many ways I appreciate the smaller items as much as the great paintings.”
It was a sentiment reflected by descendents of the Emperor’s family who attended the reception. “The Empress Eugenie was my father’s godmother,” one family member, Princess Caroline Murat, said. “It is delightful to see all these objects in such a setting. It is a wonderful collection.”
For many years it was Napoleon III’s uncle, Napoleon I, who had been held in French history. But Napoleon III has been rediscovered for the achievements of his 20-year reign during which he brought in universal male suffrage, the beginnings of a social safety net, recognition of workers’ rights, industrialization, the creation of the railway network and major ports – as well as the modernization of Paris.